Dirty sewage water pours into the river through a pipe in the concrete wall.

Water companies apologise for sewage spills, announce transformation plan

Image credit: Dreamstime

Water companies have promised to undertake the largest modernisation of England's sewer system ‘since Victorian era’, but campaigners complain customers will pay for the upgrade.

The ten English water management companies have issued a joint apology and recognised they failed to address sewage spills in beaches and rivers quickly enough.

The apology was made by Water UK, the industry body which represents England's nine water and sewage companies. To address the situation, the organisation announced plans for the largest-ever investment in sewage networks, which will cut the number of overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared to the level in 2020.

However, customers and campaigners have complained over suggestions that the upgrade might result in higher bills for customers. 

"The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear – we are sorry," said Ruth Kelly, chair of Water UK. “More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.

“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”

The companies have faced public anger after it was revealed that there had been a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day, according to figures from the Environment Agency. Last summer, marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) claimed that there were 5,504 incidences of raw sewage being dumped into bathing waters.

Water spills between 2016 and 2022

Water spills between 2016 and 2022 (PA Media/ Environment Agency)

Image credit: PA Media (Data from Environment Agency)

Water UK said “£10 billion – more than triple current levels” is ready to be invested in the transformation project, enabling "the most ambitious programme on sewage spills in the world”.

Under the National Overflow Plan, the water companies - Anglian Water, Northumbrian Water, Severn Trent Water, South West Water, Southern Water, Thames Water, United Utilities Water, Wessex Water and Yorkshire Water - will aim to cut sewage spills by up to 35 per cent by 2030 and also establish 100 new swimming areas.

The project will also include the creation of a national environmental hub, which will provide "near real-time data" on all 15,000 overflow points in the country, in order to "increase transparency and allow the public to hold companies to account", the organisation has said. The pledge responds to the government's legal requirement that companies provide information on sewage overflows by 2025.

Water UK revealed the initial funding for the upgrades would be raised from investors and paid back by customers in small increments each year, with a "modest" impact on bills.

Although environmental campaigners overall welcomed the apology, they opposed the notion that the upgrades might be paid for by the company's customers, rather than its shareholders.

"What I am actually hearing is no apology for the fact we have paid them for a service we haven't got; they are now suggesting we pay them a second time for a service we haven't had," environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey told the BBC's Today programme. 

"We should have an apology for the suggestion they are going to put bills up by £10bn for their incompetence and their greed. This is nothing to celebrate."

Izzy Ross, campaigns manager at Surfers Against Sewage welcomed "the long overdue apology" but added that: "The UK public has already paid for environmental protection from sewage - but we're yet to see it. And whilst the water industry rakes it in, this investment pledged by Water UK must come out of water company profits, not from the bill payer."

In 2022, water and sewage companies paid £1.4bn in dividends to their shareholders, an increase from £540m in 2021.

However, public bodies and regulators have overall welcomed the apology and its accompanying announcement.

“We welcome the apology from water companies and this now needs to be turned into action," said a spokesperson for Ofwat, the water regulator. “We have been pushing water companies to do more, faster, for their customers and for our waterways and beaches. We look forward to seeing the plans and how companies will step up performance.

“Through our regulatory process, we will ensure they deliver the best possible outcomes over the next five years and beyond. It is important that companies continue to engage clearly with the public on how this proposed investment will benefit communities and improve quality of life." 

Alan Lovell, chairman of the Environment Agency, said: “It is right that the industry is honest, accountable and shows the tangible steps it is taking to drive the improvements that we all want to see.”

The plan responds to the requirements set in February by environment secretary Therese Coffey, who said England’s wastewater companies must issue an improvement plan for every storm outflow, showing the amount of waste that will be spilt and efforts to reduce it.

However, Coffey recently blamed misinformation over sewage dumping for her low approval rating among Tory members. She stressed that the issue had long been a problem, but that it was only now being discussed because the department had chosen to "lift the lid" on the problem.

“I’m not surprised, especially when there’s a lot of misinformation out there and somehow people think this is a brand new issue," she told ITV’s Peston. “Actually what we’ve done is unveiled the issue, it’s become very clear.”

She said monitoring has “unveiled the scale of the problem”, adding that “by the end of the year, every storm overflow will be monitored”.

In June 2022, the Environment Agency published a report identifying 62 “serious pollution incidents” that occurred last year, up from 44 the year before, in what it described as the worst performance on pollution seen in years.

In light of the “appalling” situation, the regulator called for the organisations’ executives to face prison time if they oversee serious and repeated pollution incidents, arguing that enforcement action and court fines for breaching environmental laws have proved to be unable to improve environmental performance.

Sewage spills can also have serious public health consequences. Hospitals nationwide have reported some 400 accounts of sickness from people swimming and surfing in bathing waters. Some of the worst cases of sickness included leptospirosis and kidney failure.

However, before the £10bn increase in investment pledged by the companies can be implemented, it will first have to be reviewed by the water regulator, Ofwat, to determine what impact it could have on bills.

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